In the last few weeks the long-running case against 89-year old John Demjanjuk has reached its culmination. The Ukrainian born man, who has lived in the USA since 1952, has been deported to Germany and is awaiting trial in a prison in Munich.
He is accused of having been a guard at the Sobibor Nazi death camp between March and September 1943 and of being an accessory to the murder of over 29 000 Jews. It is a case which has taken many twists and turns.
Born Ivan Demjanjuk, he was deported once before in 1986 to Israel, accused of being the infamous ‘Ivan the Terrible’ at Treblinka death camp. In 1988, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.
However, his conviction was eventually overturned in 1993 by the Israeli Supreme Court after new evidence was uncovered which indicated that ‘Ivan the Terrible’ had probably been a different man. Consequently, Demjanjuk was released and returned to America.
Then, in 2005, a court ruled that even though he may not have been ‘Ivan the Terrible’, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that Demjanjuk had been a death camp guard. It ruled that Demjanjuk should be deported either to his native Ukraine, Germany or Poland to be tried.
After numerous failed appeals, Demjanjuk was finally deported to Germany last week, where he was immediately arrested and taken to Stadelheim prison, Munich.
The Demjanjuk case is extraordinary, simply due to the timescale which it covers – this latest arrest comes over 65 years after the crimes he allegedly committed. But in this way, it serves as a perfect illustration for the restlessness of the justice system.
Kurt Schrimm, head of the special office investigating Nazi crimes, said, “For the first time we have even found lists of names of the people Demjanjuk led into the gas chambers. We have no doubt that he is responsible for the deaths of over 29 000 Jews.”
The trial will not be as much about exacting punishment on this elderly man as it will be about establishing and revealing his guilt, explained Wolfgang Benz, head of the Centre for Anti-Semitism Research at Berlin University.
“This is about guilt, about avenging a crime, about responsibility for a criminal act,” he stated.
As these latest developments have taken place, a parallel story has been uncovered involving a Rwandan priest living and working in Empoli near Florence, Italy, who is accused of having actively participated in the 1994 genocide.
Father Emmanuel Uwayezu, who has since altered his name to Wayezu, is being accused of direct complicity in the murder of over 80 students aged from 12-20 at a Catholic school in Kibeho where he was headmaster.
One of the few survivors, now living in Britain, has identified Uwayezu and described how he brought militiamen to the school and helped them to carry out the massacre of the Tutsi students.
“Some people who were working in the kitchen were shot in front of his eyes but he did not say a word. Others were hacked to death, raped or buried alive,” the witness testified, too scared to be identified by name.
As Rwandan authorities prepare an international arrest warrant for Uwayezu, he continues to deny the charges against him, protesting his innocence and claiming that he had tried to save the children.
Uwayezu would not be the first Rwandan priest to face genocide charges from the United Nations war crimes tribunal.
In December 2006, Athanase Seromba, a Catholic priest, was convicted of complicity in one of the most notorious massacres in the genocide.
He ordered the demolition of his church by bulldozers, while inside, hundreds sought refuge. Of the 1500 in the church, there were said to be no survivors.
There are many parallels to be drawn between the cases of Demjanjuk and Uwayezu, not simply the fact that they are unfolding simultaneously.
Both men stand accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. Both men have been uncovered far away from the countries in which their crimes were allegedly committed, on separate continents in fact.
One is accused of involvement in a genocide which took place over 60 years ago; the other of acting in a genocide very much still in living memory. But together, the stories illustrate something quite poignant – the strength and reach of the justice system.
As Demjanjuk’s case especially demonstrates, the road to justice is often long and arduous. But the authorities are now convinced they have enough evidence to prove this man guilty.
While at this point nothing has been proven against either man, their cases do inspire faith in the persistence of the system.
As these cases unfold, many of the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide are still at large across the continent and around the globe.
But if John Demjanjuk’s story is anything to go by, they will not fade into the archives of history, but eventually be brought into the light of day.
His story illustrates how the search for justice can reach deep into the past and stretch across the world. And this has to be down to the fact that it is human nature to demand justice when a crime is committed – as Wolfgang Benz underlined, “this is about guilt, about avenging a crime, about responsibility for a criminal act” – it is seldom about anything else.